Misery Farm On The Road: Misery at Gavcon II

This week we bring you the next in our sporadic series of event reviews, in which we bravely leave the house to give you an exclusive report from one of the hottest board game conventions in … a little area north of Southampton, England.

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Ok! Perhaps, more accurately, we bring you an exclusive report of what it’s like to host a small board game convention between friends. Apologies for the lower quality photographs than normal, Dr Photographer (link) decided he’d rather spend the convention ‘having fun’ and ‘playing games’ than working for us, for free, all day, so most of the photographs have been taken by Lizzy. At least this time she remembered to wipe the lens of her digital camera first, instead of just getting confused as to why all of the photos were blurry.

Gavcon (lovingly called Gaviscon* by everyone except the eponymous Gav) is the now-annual convention run by one of our good buddies we went to Essen with in 2013. A year later Gavin ‘went rogue’ and, while wildly shouting “I don’t play by your rules!”, tried to save on his yearly trips to Germany by hosting his own mini-convention, for about 20+ people, friends and friends-of-friends. This is our report from the second annual Gavcon!

How does Gavcon work?

Gavcon is unlike any other small (or large) conventions we’ve been to, but it seems to work really well. The host, Gav, charges everyone about £30 (that’s about 40 euros, 45 USD, 12,500 Hungarian forints, etc). In exchange for this unusually large sum for a convention he will book a hall and buy one game for each paying participant.

The room preparing for Gavcon
The room preparing for Gavcon

So suppose he gets 12 paying participants. He sets up a list on BoardGameGeek where everyone nominates and votes for the games they want to be able to play; we often pick new releases, things we’ve not played before but heard about, recent recommendations. Based on votes, variety and availability Gav will pick 12 games to buy and bring them all to the convention. There’s a full day of merriment, playing, food from the bar, seeing your friends who inconsiderately moved to Cambridge but are down for the convention, etc.

As the day wraps up, maybe 5pm, the real game begins! Gavin will have the names of everyone who paid their £30 on a piece of paper and in a hat. One by one a name is drawn, to applause and envy, and everyone will get to pick one of the games to take away and keep! Hopefully throughout the day people will have played a wide enough variety of games to make sure they can choose something they like, and if not they can get by on recommendations from others.

Since the £30 entry fee gets you a free game at the end of the day it turns out to be a pretty good deal. And people who can’t afford the fee or didn’t get around to paying are still encouraged to come along, they just won’t get to take away a game at the end of the evening.

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Now for the low-down on this year’s Gavcon from Lizzy, our Chief Gavcon Correspondant.

The first trick to running a small games convention, it would seem, is to pick the location very carefully. You need the space, you want somewhere that sells beer and food, but most importantly you want it to be both conveniently close and incredibly difficult to find. Gavcon meets each of these criteria, hosted just north of Southampton while simultaneously being in the middle of nowhere at all. Even when you can see the building, somewhere in the woods, it will take the driver at least ten minutes to find the entrance to a carpark. This is an important part of convention scheduling; you want the players to feel like they’re warming up, being challenged, playing their first game, getting their first victory in before they’ve even arrived.

Red7

The first game we started off with was Red7: a small and quick card game, but with some fun mechanics. It consists of the numbers 1-7, each in seven different colours.

P1020518To play, you have a choice of putting a card in front of you or in the middle. Cards in front of you will add to your ‘palette’, which is where you get your points from. Cards in the middle will… completely change the rules of the game, depending on which colour you’ve chosen! After you’ve played your turn, either changing the rules, adding to your hand or both, you need to be winning. If you’re not winning after your turn, you’re out! The round will end fairly soon and everyone will count up their score and start again.

The game is quick, easy to learn but great fun. A very good ratio of interesting tactics to difficulty. Recommended as a neat small game.

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Castles of Mad King Ludwig

Have you played Suburbia? Good. Well, it’s that game, made by the same people, but better. You have to build the best, maddest castle for the Mad King, with the rooms that become available to you. There are lots of ways that a room can score you points, and lots of exciting combinations you can work towards.

How about instead of a photo of this game you just accept this photo of a duck and ask no questions. Good.
How about instead of a photo of this game you just accept this photo of a duck and ask no questions. Good.

It’s another great one for interesting mechanics; each player takes a turn being the ‘master builder’ and decides how much money each room will cost the players to buy. They’re incentivised to make the more attractive rooms as expensive as possible, since everyone will pay them the money for the rooms.

Slightly more complex, but good fun. It’s great to play a game where you can see several paths to victory and you have to make a tough choice about which one to take.

Witness

Oh hell. I don’t even know. The day made sense earlier, what happened? Help!

P1020555Witness is a… surprising game. I don’t even know. What did they just say? Shit. It’s a combination of Chinese whispers and a puzzle game, and I don’t know how a group of four smart human adults could be as awful at it as we were. There’s a lot of information to memorise and you’re not allowed to write it down until the end. You’ll find yourself reaching over to whisper to someone and suddenly realising you’ve forgotten all of the names of all of the participants. There’s laughter, there’s tears.

A very quick game which gave us a lot of fun, but we’re not sure how much we’d want to play it after the first few runs.

Letters From Whitechapel

Chief Commissioner Moustache
Chief Commissioner Moustache

This was, to Lizzy, the most fun game of Gavcon. Since seeing a review for it she’d been mega-keen to give it a go, and voted for it to be a part of the convention both years. This year she was successful and she wasn’t going to miss the opportunity to play it!

The game requires one person to be Jack The Ripper (Dr Photographer was incredibly keen. He’s always had that serial-killer glint in his eye) and the others to be the noble investigators. There’s scrambling, hidden movement, murder and a lot of roleplaying if you get into it properly.

Quite a long game, but simple rules and very enjoyable. We’ve since reviewed it in full, here.

Murder scene
Murder scene

Colt Express

A lot of people would say that this game is worth getting just for the model train. They’re probably right.

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P1020547_FotorIt’s also fun, but if I owned it I probably wouldn’t play it that often. I don’t think that’s just because I lost. It’s fairly simple but also seems to involve a fair bit of luck, and how much the other players get in your way! It has some fun pre-planned movement mechanics that are always a laugh. Fun as a game to play through, but not for strategy, perhaps.

A pretty medium game for me, in both length and enjoyment. But maybe that’s just because the standard of games was so high! (and did I mention  how badly I lost?)

The end of the day

As the dust settled, we all gathered round for the real game to begin. We all screwed up our faces and stared intently at the hat of names, trying to get our names pulled out as early as possible to grab our favourite games. Good tactics at this point are to run around to all of your friends and try to find out which games they enjoyed the most.

Lizzy came some point in the middle but it was enough to win her Letters From Whitechapel; she was pleased as punch. Last year she was chosen first (still managing to look incredibly smug about it, despite it being luck) and managed to grab Glass Road, which is also now a favourite of the team’s.

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Gavcon works really well, but it does so because of the small number of people and the fact that they all know each other fairly well. Then you can be sure there aren’t too many grumpy disputes about anything like the money, the game you win at the end, etc. The atmosphere is friendly and the hosting seems fairly relaxed. It might not work on a larger scale, but if you’re interested in hosting your own board game events with a similarly-sized group of friends then we found this format to work really well!

As always, the real winner is board games.

*Gaviscon is the name of some kind of heartburn medication over here, by the way. Honestly, it’s a very witty joke if you’re from the UK.**

**Disclaimer, joke might not be witty.

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Letters From Whitechapel: The Case of the Illogically Numbered Board

Brutus scale: Just 1 dagger out of 10
Pairs well with: Gin from your local 1880s London gin distillery.

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Picture the scene. It was a dark and stormy night (only metaphorically, it was actually a disappointingly pleasant afternoon) and in the area of Bob’s living room designated as ‘Whitechapel’, four frightened looking bloggers and blogger-friends looked on as Lizzy cackled maniacally behind a cardboard screen and took up her role as Jack The Ripper.

Letters From Whitechapel is a mostly co-operative board game. Between one and five of you will play the noble detectives, trying to hunt down and stop the ruthless, psychotic killer before it’s too late. Another of you will play that very same ruthless, psychotic killer. That was obviously going to be Lizzy. Lizzy ‘always-the-cylon’, ‘never trust her in any board game’, ‘what the hell lizzy leave my goddamn skeletons alone’ The Ripper. Suits her.

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She first saw this game on a Shut Up and Sit Down review and had wanted to try it ever since. She incessantly insisted that someone buy it for Gavcon- a mini gaming event hosted by some friends – until eventually the eponymous Gavin relented. She ended up winning the game in a raffle at the end of the night, and went on to play it eight times the following week. You get the idea; Lizzy really likes the bloody game.

6D-32-107The game uses what most people (more on that later) would call some very simple hidden movement mechanics. Jack The Ripper moves on circles, the detectives move on squares. Jack tracks his (or in this case, her) own movements secretly on paper hidden behind a screen-of-doom and tries to get from the murder scene to her house without getting caught. The detectives try to catch her first. They can do this by ‘searching for clues’ on the circles nearby to see if she’s passed through that spot in that round, or by ‘making an arrest’ if they think she might be there.

With us so far? You are? Good, perhaps it’s time to introduce the game from the other perspective. The detectives have all chosen their period-accurate roles. Chief Inspector Donald Swanson (no relation to Mr. Ronald Swanson, and played in this game by our own Dr Photographer) gets the role of Lead Investigator to start with. 6D-32-128Everyone has excellent faith in his leading abilities, since as long as they’re half as good as the moustache in his portrait then it’ll be an easy round. The team quickly scrabble through the fairly administrative first half of the game – the instructions describe this as ‘HELL’ – and Lizzy The Ripper needs to decide when to make her first kill. Oh, yeah, that’s right. She gets her first kill before anyone gets a chance to try to stop her. The game isn’t about saving lives, it’s about the egos of the detectives and the serial killer.

"First Part: HELL"
“First Part: HELL”

She’s mildly indecisive about when to make the kill, possibly for suspense, viz: “… and suddenly! Through the cool summer night’s air you hear a scream… wait, no… sorry guys. CA-CAW! It was actually a seagull. Carry on.” Or possibly it’s just for a chance to make seagull noises. It will forever remain a mystery.

London's most wanted
London’s most wanted
Pool of blood. The scatty focus is supposed to be reflective of the detectives' state of mind.
Pool of blood. The scatty focus is supposed to be reflective of the detectives’ state of mind.

The murder happens at last and an apt transparent red counter is used to mark the pool of blood that’s spilling into the gutters of Victorian London. The team’s faith in C.I. Donald Swanson may have been misplaced, since it’s now revealed that none of the inspectors are very close at all to the crime scene. He’s promptly renamed ‘Chief Inspector Whoops’. There’s already discussion of whether or not they should give up and pretend that they didn’t hear the scream. It’s very far away. Probably nothing to concern ourselves with, nothing to see here folks.

As it became apparent when we played Quantum, Lizzy loves a game with some good and unexpected roleplaying potential. Letters from Whitechapel is one of these games. By the end of her first week of playing each of her housemates had developed a personality and a backstory for each of the detectives.

Our heroes are vaguely aware that a crime may have happened in the distance.
Our heroes are vaguely aware that a crime may have happened in the distance.

Poor Detective Inspector Edmund Reid’s wife has been arrested several times by mistake, and let’s not even go into the kinds of things that Chief Inspector Frederick Abberline has got up to. Those mutton chops hide a multitude of sins, folks.

You remember earlier we mentioned that The Ripper moves on circles and the detectives move on squares? And that the detectives can try to hunt The Ripper down by looking for clues on adjacent circles? Well, it’s time to have a few words about Bob.

Bob is a competent human being. Bob runs places, plays a damn good game of Glass Road and is doing a bloody PhD. She also has a rare condition called Letters From Whitechapel Blindness (in addition to a serious case of Turn Narcissism, as describe in Caylus). For the love of all that is good in the world, Bob cannot remember which numbered circles she’s supposed to be searching on. Really. It’s embarrassing for all of the players on the game. She’d never see us. Bob’s detectives must just have a really good sense of smell or something. They can apparently check for clues through walls and two streets away.

The guilty party
The guilty party

Coincidentally, Bob isn’t such a fan of this game. You may find her lying on the floor proclaiming that this game is ‘like Minesweeper, but shit’. It’s definitely one that has polarised The Misery Farmers. Briony enjoyed it rather a lot, maybe she’s just pretty good at ignoring the horrific murder of prostitutes disguised by a white wooden game piece, or indeed distracted by the intrigue of what could possibly be in Jack’s house? She reasons what if it’s totally normal, and he has like an elderly mother sharing the house, and has lace doylies, and flushes the toilet like a normal person? What if he has a pet cat? Was that the clue-cat all along Lizzy? Holy shit, Lizzy, was your cat trying to guide us to your capture?

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Meanwhile, another prostitute has been murdered and another round has begun. The team have decided that the best way to make the game fair is to introduce a new rule: for every successful space The Ripper moves, she takes a small swig of gin. Only way to even things out.

“I search for a clue on 68!”
“You find a cat. It miaows.”
“Does the cat have any clues?”
“No, you fool, it’s a cat.”

“I search for a clue on 86!”
“Nothing here but a gentle breeze and a sense of bitter disappointment.”

“I search for clues on 75!”
“No you don’t, Bob. For goodness’ sake, that circle is miles away.”
“Oh, so it is.”

“I search for clues on 70!”
“It’s that same cat from before.”
“Oh damn. Does it have a clue this time?”
“Why yes! It’s playing in some entrails. YOU FIND A CLUE!”

Hot on the trail
Hot on the trail

The detectives eventually employ some excellent guesswork deduction and have narrowed down The Ripper’s hideout. They’re certain it’s on 78. For sure. They don’t have any clues pointing in that direction but they sure are confident. It just looks a bit shifty. Bob, meanwhile, continues to get confused over circles and squares. We decide that if Bob were a supervillain, we could all just infiltrate her lair by dressing up as a black square. She’d never see us.

6D-32-178The team gather their wily crew of detectives round 78 and are “staking out the joint”. No amount of darting through alleys will save our slightly tipsy antagonist now. She has to get home in a certain amount of moves or presumably she just falls asleep where she is on the streets and gets arrested in the morning, losing the game. Time is nearly up. She makes one final dash for it but the detectives have employed a reckless but effective strategy of making random arrests on every circle in the vicinity. Most of Whitechapel has been loaded into their van so far, included several pigeons, the cat from earlier and the baker’s son. Finally, she weeps and Briony makes the fatal arrest.

Lizzy took five victims: four of whom were in the game and the fifth of which was Bob’s gin supply. It was a victory for the good guys.

Lizzy loves the game. Bob does not. Briony is narrative-distracted.

Overall, it was a game that polarised the team. It’s not incredibly high on strategy, but can still be an awful lot of fun. Originally we worried that it might get a bit boring after a while, but the evidence shows that if you like the game then you’ll get a lot of play out of it. We awarded it only 1/10 on our ‘Brutus Scale’ because it’s not really the kind of game for dicking each others’ turns up at all. At least, not on purpose, and not easily.

The team line up for a round of applause.
The team line up for a round of applause.

Credit to Dr Photographer (C.I. Donald Swanson) for the photographs